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U.K. military warns ex-pilots not to train Chinese air force

In this undated file photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location. (AP)

LONDON — Britain has issued a threat alert warning its former military personnel not to be lured to China with lucrative contracts to train that country’s armed forces, citing concerns that such activity could give Beijing access to Britain’s national-security secrets and capabilities.

“China is a competitor that is threatening the U.K. interest in many places around the world,” British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told Sky News in an interview Tuesday. “There’s been a concern within the MOD for a number of years,” he added, referring to Britain’s Ministry of Defense.

Up to 30 former Royal Air Force pilots may have gone to China to train members of the People’s Liberation Army of China. The BBC reported some earned financial packages up to $270,000.

This has prompted Britain to consider changing its laws to criminalize former personnel taking up contracts to train members of certain foreign militaries.

“We have approached the people that are involved and been clear with them that it’s our expectation they would not continue to be part of that organization, and we are going to put into law, that once people have been given that warning, it will become an offense to then go forward and continue with that training,” Heappey added.

He underscored that Beijing was an “important” partner for Britain but said China had made “no secret in their attempt to gain access to our secrets, and their recruitment of our pilots in order to understand the capabilities of our air force is clearly a concern to us.”

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One British lawmaker, Tobias Ellwood, went further.

“RAF vets who help train the Chinese should LOSE British citizenship,” Ellwood, a military veteran and Conservative politician, tweeted Tuesday. “We should not be surprised by China’s audacity in luring UK pilots to learn about our tactics.” Despite the rhetoric, it remains difficult in practice in Britain to strip someone of citizenship over national security concerns.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily news briefing Tuesday that he was unaware of any such recruitment efforts.

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In a statement to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for Britain’s Ministry of Defense called such recruitment drives a “contemporary” security challenge, noting that “all serving and former personnel are already subject to the Official Secrets Act, and we are reviewing the use of confidentiality contracts and non-disclosure agreements across Defense.”

Britain’s Official Secrets Act sets out offenses related to espionage, sabotage and the unlawful disclosure of official information by some government employees.

“We are taking decisive steps to stop Chinese recruitment schemes attempting to headhunt serving and former UK Armed Forces pilots to train People’s Liberation Army personnel,” the MOD statement added.

Relations between Beijing and London have soured in recent years over trade, concerns about civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony, and the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. British Prime Minister Liz Truss has previously said China presents a threat to the rules-based international order and accused Beijing of “rapidly building a military capable of projecting power deep into areas of European strategic interest.”

Last week, one of Britain’s most senior spy chiefs made a rare public speech, warning about China’s bid to extend its sphere of influence using science and technology.

Calling it a “sliding doors moment in history,” Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ — Britain’s intelligence, cyber and security agency — accused China’s Communist Party of seeking to create “client economies and governments.” He also warned of the “hidden costs” of overreliance on Chinese technology.

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Britain is not alone in being concerned.

Last week, the White House said in a national security strategy that China remains the most consequential geopolitical challenge to the United States, despite Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Beijing in response accused Washington of “Cold War thinking” and called for better efforts to repair strained relations.

The issue also extends beyond China. Since 2015, more than 500 retired U.S. military personnel — including scores of generals and admirals — have taken lucrative jobs working for foreign governments, mostly in countries known for human rights abuses and political repression, according to a Washington Post investigation.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued to make “military modernization a priority,” undertaking ambitious reforms, according to a congressional research paper published last year, in a bid to form a “world-class” military by 2049 — the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Xi is set to strengthen his grip on power by securing a precedent-breaking third term in office during this week’s party congress.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused China of speeding up plans to seize Taiwan, asserting that “Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline.” He did not provide details but said China could be willing to use coercive or forceful means, a posture that he said was “creating tremendous tensions.”